One hot, becalmed day James Martin, from Bissoe in Cornwall, wrote in his diary: “Oh this uncertainty there is about a sailing ship. We may be stuck here for a month or gone in an hour.”
He was a passenger in the sailing ship Euterpe on her way from London to Lyttelton in 1879. The ship was commanded by my great-grandfather Captain Thomas Eddes Phillips, and the voyage lasted a long, uncomfortable 134 days. Apart from the important matter of the weather – “rain, everyone busy catching water” – James Martin’s diary contains descriptions of that voyage and the people who were his companions.
He comes across as an agreeable young man who enjoyed music and dancing, and there was plenty of both on board. He was probably pious – he helped to run Sunday school classes for the children, and his brother David preached at Bible meetings. He may have been a little priggish – he lectured his mess-mates about the virtues of total abstinence, although he didn’t seem too put out by one Hartley, who came in drunk one night and started kicking up James’s bunk boards from below. And he didn’t miss much – “Mrs Davies is in love with Middleton” he wrote, without further comment.
But mostly James Martin made himself useful. Watches needed attention – perhaps it was the salt air. One Friday he earned a shilling for repairing Mr Tichbon’s gold watch. Mr Tichbon must have been pleased, because he returned with a locket that needed mending, for which James charged him sixpence. He put a new mainspring in Mr Foat’s watch and altered another’s, and soon James was kept busy with a steady stream of clients wanting their watches, earrings and other jewellery cleaned and repaired.
His reputation was spreading and he was certainly versatile. He stopped a leak in a water can, and mended a lamp. He made a grater so that he could grate the rock-hard ship’s biscuits into flour for making puddings. He made a mustard spoon - why, we wonder. He even dabbled in dentistry and “pulled out Bealy’s tooth.”
He could cook, or at least was willing to try. When Annie (his sister?) became unwell he made a nice pudding, a “very fair attempt for the first” and later he and David made a pie. Their attempt at baked potatoes and a pudding was not so successful: James thought the “baked pudding wasn't very nice since I don't think it was soaked [enough]”. They helped with the laundry – no easy matter when it had to be done on deck and in salt water. Towards the end of the voyage James wrote that Annie was “going to have, we hope, the last wash on board and we shall have to help.”
Peace was hard to find in a small ship carrying 166 passengers plus crew. James travelled steerage, in one of the narrow bunks pictured here, and seemed to have shared his bunk with tin pails, tea, sugar and other supplies which were “pitched out of the bed” in rough weather. No surprise that he often slept on deck if the weather permitted. Some afternoons he retreated into a life-boat where he could marvel at phosphorescence glittering on the wave tops, or admire an albatross with its “white plumage, slight tails of primrose” and once “sat long time watching the lightning. It was grand.” One day he climbed the rigging and “had a good quiet read all the afternoon” and enjoyed the sight of thousands of flying fish and the “vast expanse and nothing but water, water”.
On Christmas Eve, 1879, Euterpe sailed into Lyttelton harbour. James’s last note said – was there a wisp of sadness here? – that other passengers had “friends meeting, but none to greet us”. I wonder how he got on in the new, can-do, will-do country.
Photo of steerage accommodation, with belated acknowledgements and grateful thanks to Mike Wood Photography